Man and Wife

man and wifeI’m on record as being a massive Wilkie Collins fan. I love his sensationalist prose and his twists and turns and especially his unctuous villains. The books I’ve read of his (six so far) have all been complete hoots. But now that I’ve read the four he wrote during the 1860s that made his reputation (The Woman in White, The Moonstone, No Name, and Armadale) I’m always a little nervous that anything else I read of his will be downhill from there. What if the next book is dull, or preachy, or badly put together? I approach each one warily, as if it might be a bomb. I chose Man and Wife with some trepidation, but thinking that the title — well, nothing can go wrong there, right? Heh heh heh.

Another smash hit! Man and Wife is the complicated story of the evils of Scottish marriage law during the 19th century, and secondarily of the evils of working out. (I’m not kidding even a little bit. I shall explain.) The book takes place in Scotland, although almost all the people involved are English. Anne Silvester, a governess and a wise, kind woman, has been promised marriage by an absolute scoundrel, Geoffrey Delmayn. She is in a desperate position, because she is pregnant and he is not willing to marry her; she has no money to tempt him. She asks him to come and speak to her at a nearby inn, but he hears that his father is on the point of death and rushes off to see if he can talk his father into putting him back into the will. He sends his reluctant friend, Arnold Brinkworth, to speak to Miss Silvester instead, and unhappily Mr. Brinkworth is kept overnight at the inn by a savage storm. He leaves the next day, and is soon married to Miss Silvester’s best friend Blanche. But. BUT. According to the marriage laws of Scotland, this marriage is… BIGAMY! Because Arnold stayed overnight with Anne Silvester! At an inn! In the character of her husband, because otherwise the innkeeper wouldn’t let him in to see her! He could never be Blanche’s true husband! Their marriage is false!… OR IS IT???

This book is absolutely as wonderfully dramatic as anyone could possibly wish it to be. It has not one but two possible bigamous marriages; miscarriage; not one but several dramatic deaths and near-deaths and announcements that deaths will come; domestic abuse; changed wills and codicils; dramatic confessions both written and verbal; a menacing mute servant; Scottish servants with heavy accents for comic relief; weddings, brilliant comeuppances, and a murder. It is unbelievably satisfying from beginning to end. One of the best things about it is that only the worst characters suspect the good characters of evil intentions; the good characters trust each other almost entirely, which is consistent with human nature (unlike, say, Othello.)

Perhaps the oddest and most unexpected thing about the book is the issue about exercise. Wilkie Collins took it into his head to use this novel to expatiate about the trend in England at the time for men to harden their muscles, to run about, to use bats and balls, to row boats, and so forth. He was very much against this sort of thing. In the book, the villain, Geoffrey Delmayn, is one of these muscular fellows, and cares for nothing else — in fact, he is one of the fastest foot-racers in England, but he’s also an extremely nasty cad. “Look,” Wilkie Collins essentially says, “working your muscles but not your head or heart makes you a barbarian. What good will this do your nation or your soul? When it comes to making selfless decisions, how will your muscles help you?” The funniest thing about all this, of course, is that we’ve gone much farther this direction. Geoffrey Delmayn’s utterly exhausting foot-race is four miles (!). What would Collins think of an Ironman triathlon? (Of course, what do I think of one?)

This was a marvelous sensationalist novel, and totally enjoyable. Unless one of you has another suggestion, I’ll probably read Poor Miss Finch next, which is about a blind woman in love with twins. Doesn’t that sound fantastic?

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How It Went Down

This novel by Kekla Magoon begins with a brief description of the incident:

The known facts about the shooting death of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson are few. On the evening of June 2, at approximately 5:30 P.M., Johnson sustained two nine-millimeter gunshot wounds to the torso. Police officers arrived at 5:37 P.M. Johnson was pronounced dead at the scene. Police apprehended a person if interest, Jack Franklin, who was present when Johnson was shot but left the scene in a borrowed vehicle shortly afterward. Franklin was pulled over nearly four miles away from the site of the shooting, at 5:56 P.M. A nine-millimeter handgun, recently fired, was found in the back seat.

Over the course of the novel, we learn more details from witnesses and people in the neighborhood. Tariq was running an errand for his mom. Someone heard the shopkeeper shout “Stop! Thief!” But it turns out he was mistaken. The shopkeeper was calling Tariq back to get his change. But other facts aren’t clear. Did Tariq have a gun? If so, where did the gun go? Was he in a gang? Does it even matter?

The book follows the community over the week after the shooting. In short first-person narratives, usually just a page or two long, people touched by Tariq’s death reflect on what happened and on their own lives. We hear from Jennica, a young waitress who saw the shooting and tried to perform CPR. Brian Trellis, who thought Tariq was a thief. Brick, leader of the 8-5 Kings, who has been trying to recruit Tariq and was on the scene. The Reverend Alabaster Sloan, a politician who arrives on the scene to support the family and get in front of the cameras. And then there’s Tariq’s family and friends, each person with his or her own perspective on how things went down and what to do next.

One of the boldest things about this book is how Magoon refuses to answer a lot of the questions around Tariq’s death. She doesn’t allow for easy answers or clear finger-pointing. Only a few things are clear by the end. Tariq was surrounded by violence, and his death was a tragedy. There are people who are clearly part of the problem, who are making things worse for boys like Tariq and everyone in the neighborhood. But most of the people in the book are just trying to figure out how to live.

Take Tyrell. He was probably Tariq’s closest friends and one of the few boys in the neighborhood who managed to stay out of the Kings. But without Tariq around, who will protect him? Kimberly, a hairdresser, is also not part of a gang, but she longs for a way to a bigger life. Will meeting Rev. Al help her get there? And Will has gotten the chance to live in a better neighborhood, thanks to his new step-dad, but he misses the good things about his old world and sneaks back to make street art and tags whenever he can.

Written in 2014, the book echoes the Trayvon Martin case in some respects—hoodies and candy feature prominently. And Magoon clearly has the injustice of Trayvon’s death on her mind, but this book takes a wider view, looking at how the people in a community intersect and how each person has to plot his or her own course in light of community pressures.

At times, I found the large cast of characters overwhelming, especially early on before I’d gotten to know any of them. The quick jumps between chapters took me a while to get used to as well. But once I got involved, I liked how the book presented so many different sides of the neighborhood. This is a book about a community, and communities are filled with so many different types of people that showing just one or two won’t capture the whole picture.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Contemporary, Fiction | 1 Comment

The Truelove/Clarissa Oakes

Captain Jack Aubrey has never much liked having women on his ships, and in the 15th book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, we can see why. Titled The Truelove in the U.S. and Clarissa Oakes overseas, this book follows the HMS Surprise through the South Pacific after their sojourn in New South Wales. The book takes place almost entirely at sea, and the drama mostly involves the relationships among the crew.

The source of a lot of the tension on the ship is a stowaway named Clarissa Harville, an escaped convict brought on board in Sydney by Midshipman Oakes. Although Jack in not a bit pleased about her being there, he decides to be kind and allow them to marry and stay on board. He even gives her cloth for a wedding gown and makes sure that some of the most skilled stitchers on the crew are able to help create a suitable dress. Once again, Jack proves to be soft-hearted.

But even after the wedding, Clarissa’s presence causes tension. Her casual attitude toward sex gives several of the men the wrong idea about her feelings and creates rivalries. Stephen later learns that she was sexually abused as a child and worked for years in a brothel, usually as a bookkeeper but sometimes serving clients. This, we’re led to assume, accounts for her attitude toward men. I’m not sure that this psychologizing really holds up, but I’m impressed that O’Brian makes an effort to round Clarissa out and make her sympathetic, rather than merely a object for the men to dispute over.

Like the other books in the series, this novel is filled with little subplots and incidents, some of which are related to the larger arc of the story, and some of which are not. Jack shows some signs of depression, and Stephen encourages him to exercise. Jack gets orders that he’s not sure he should share with Stephen, and Stephen continues to seek out the spy Wray previously reported to. Clarissa proves to be helpful here, having seen Wray and Ledward at the brothel with another man. When Clarissa eventually leaves the ship, Stephen sends a coded message with her in hopes of getting the investigation moving ahead.

A worrying development involves Stephen’s daughter, Brigid, born while Stephen was on this journey. Diana seems to have little interest in the baby, and her letters are brief, undated, and focus mostly on horses. Sophie’s more detailed letters to Jack hint that something is wrong with the child. Although I’ve grown to like Diana very much over the course of the series, I’ve been uncertain about whether she’d handle motherhood well, and if the baby is still, I’m even more concerned. Stephen has been so excited about becoming a father, and I fear there’s going to be heartbreak ahead. I hope I’m wrong, but things so often go badly for poor Stephen that I won’t be surprised if I’m right.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Leave a comment


oblomovThis 19th-century novel by Ivan Goncharov spends its first hundred and fifty pages establishing its main character, Oblomov. Who is this man, and why is he the way he is? It seemed to me at first an excruciatingly slow way to get going, and at first I thought there might be nothing more to this book at all — just a portrait. But instead, when things started moving, I was so invested in Oblomov that even tiny events filled me with hope or despair. Goncharov succeeds completely at creating Oblomov and his friends, so that even an ordinary man with an ordinary life is thoroughly fascinating.

Oblomov is the world’s laziest man. He went to school and didn’t like it, and he worked in the civil service for a couple of years and then just never went back. Now he lies on the couch in his parlor, wrapped in his fraying dressing-gown, and daydreams. He thinks of the improvements he wants to make on his estate, revises them, adds new ideas — but never goes to his estate or does anything about the improvements. He dreams of music, dancing, and brilliant witticisms, but when his friends invite him out, he refuses to go (it’s cold, it’s dull, it’s too late in the day.) He dreams of travel but wouldn’t venture abroad to save his life — and his doctor tells him that if he keeps sleeping after dinner, drinking, and eating heavily, travel might be the only thing that can save his life. He doesn’t read; the page of his book where he left off has turned dusty and yellowed. He simply lives in his mind, dreaming of his perfect childhood and of all the things he could do if he chose. In other words — in the words of his active, energetic friend Stoltz — he has Oblomovitis.

One day, Stoltz drags Oblomov out, by main force, to the home of some friends of his. There, Oblomov meets Olga, a sparkling, sardonic young woman. The shape of the love story that follows is wrenching, as Oblomov rises out of his torpor for love and then slowly finds that this new, beautiful life is too frightening. His love and then slow descent from love are at the center of the book. The insidious effects of Oblomovitis play themselves out right to the end.

Goncharov’s real masterpiece in this book, however, is not so much the plot as the characters. You’d think Oblomov would be boring or infuriating, but actually he jumps off the page. He is incredibly sympathetic. Even though he is supremely lazy and deeply flawed, I came to love him and be profoundly concerned about his welfare. The same is true of the other characters, especially Stoltz, Olga, and Oblomov’s housekeeper. Even Oblomov’s manservant Zakhar, who is mostly there for comic relief, has depths to him. The long descriptions of Oblomov’s childhood serve as a satire and as a window into what spoiled him for society. The humanity of this book is what makes it shine.

So far, I’ve read most of the “obvious” Russian novels that most people begin with (with the exception of Eugene Onegin) and am starting to branch out into books I haven’t heard of as often. I have the sense that there’s richness and depth to this literature that I will take a lot of time discovering. If Oblomov is any example, it’s going to be great. (Incidentally, I included the most hilarious cover image, not the one I read. I read the 1954 Penguin Classic edition, translated by David Magarshack.) Any suggestions about what Russian novel I should read next?

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 14 Comments

What Is the Bible?

People have lots of ideas about the Bible. A lot of those ideas are incomplete, misguided, or just plain wrong. And often those mistaken ideas lead people to miss the richness of the biblical stories. That’s what Rob Bell is trying to correct in this book. He wants to guide readers to take a fresh look at the Bible and maybe discover something they hadn’t seen before. And, for me, it worked!

I grew up in a Christian tradition that emphasized the literal truth of the Bible. God said it. I believe it. That settles it. But, over the years, I came to find that view unsatisfying, limiting even. Contradictory accounts, like the different timelines around Jesus’s death and resurrection were explained away. The violence God directed people to commit in the Old Testament was shrugged off. And, sometimes, the obsession with historicity seemed to miss the point. For example, focusing on the fact that Adam and Eve ate some fruit God forbade them to eat for no clear reason makes God seem capricious. Remembering that it’s the “fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” and looking at it as a metaphor for the desire to know good and evil makes it a much richer story.

Bell urges readers to look for the hidden truth inside the story, rather than focusing on literal truth. His belief is that this approach is more true to the biblical writers’ intentions. These writers weren’t just recording what they saw and heard. They made choices about what to include and what to leave out. And then others came along and chose these specific writings to lift up as saying something important about God’s relationship to the world. It’s not just taking dictation. (Bell does not believe in biblical inerrancy, and he makes his case in one of the later chapters in this book.)

My favorite chapters in this book are those that examine specific biblical stories, putting them in context and picking out details that are easy to miss. For instance, in his discussion of John 8, the story of the woman caught in adultery, he notes that it takes place at the time of the Feast of the Tabernacles. During this feast, the leaders who asked Jesus if they are to stone the woman would have been teaching a passage from Jeremiah that includes the verse “Those who turn away from you will be written in dust.” So when Jesus bends down and begins writing in the dust, he is quite possibly calling back that passage. What Jesus writes is one of those unanswerable questions people like to bandy around, but Bell’s idea is one of the best I’ve come across.

Bell takes a similar approach to other stories, like that of Jonah, whose sojourn in the fish’s belly proves to be less important than the choices that led him there. He doesn’t pretend the unpleasant stories aren’t there, but he looks for things that we can learn from them. Even though I consider myself pretty biblically literate, I learned lots of new things.

The last part of the book addresses questions that Bell gets (or might get) asked about the Bible and his way of understanding it. What about all that violence? Why is Leviticus in the Bible? Is it authoritative? Is it inerrant? Is it inspired? These chapters provided fewer aha moments for me because the questions are ones I’ve thought about a lot, and his answers weren’t altogether new or different from ideas I’ve come across before. (And I generally agree with his answers.)

Bell writes in an engaging style, one that’s meant for general audiences, not Bible scholars. Despite the topic, it’s a light read. However, I sometimes found the humor to be over the top. He even goes so far as to say things like, “Please tell me you thought that was funny” after cracking a bad joke. I usually didn’t, but I liked the book anyway. I hadn’t read Rob Bell before, although I know many people who liked his past books. I may give some of those a try.

Posted in Nonfiction, Religion | 4 Comments

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Rosemary Cooke grew up in a farmhouse with her brother, sister, parents, and a whole team of graduate students. But when she was five years old, everything changed. She went away to her grandparents and came back to a different home. The house was smaller and not full of grad students. Her older brother, Lowell, was largely absent. And there was no trace of her sister, Fern. In fact, as far as Rosemary can recall, no one in the family spoke much about Fern after that. She was living on a farm, Rosemary was told, and that was that.

Of course, that’s not the whole story, and this novel by Karen Joy Fowler delves into how the stories we tell ourselves and each other are almost always incomplete. As we play our memories over and over in our heads, we shape them, and the story that embeds itself in our brain may be missing key information.

For the first third or so of the book, Fowler shows how this works by having Rosemary leave a key piece of information out of the first 75 pages of her narrative. As far as the readers know, Fern is an ordinary human sister, raised alongside Rosemary from their shared infancy. But Fern is a chimp. Rosemary understands that she needs to withhold that fact to help readers see what the relationship felt like from her point of view.

I tell you Fern is a chimp and, already, you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. You’re thinking instead that we loved her as if she were some kind of pet.

Rosemary and Fern grew up together, being read to by the same mother, playing in the same yard, taking the same tests. They were different, sure, but what siblings aren’t? And Lowell, age 11 when Fern disappeared from the family, felt the same way. So when Fern is gone, the family is shattered. Lowell resents those he deems responsible, and his resentment only grows when he learns he’s been lied to about Fern’s fate. Rosemary feels only confusion, and no one will talk to her about it.

Most of the book is set in the 1990s, 20 years after Fern left the Cooke family. By now, Rosemary’s memories have become hazy. She still grieves Fern as a lost sister, but she knows how unusual her childhood was and has learned not to tell anyone about it. Lowell is on the run from the FBI because he directed his anger toward labs that conducted experiments on animals. Rosemary longs to see both of her siblings again, even if she doesn’t understand why they left.

Over the course of the book, Fowler carefully reveals additional versions of what happened to Fern. When Lowell tells Rosemary what he remembers, her memory expands, and the story gets clearer and more complex. When, finally, she talks to her parents, another story comes out. This story is probably the closest to the complete truth, but there are gaps. The Cooke parents had their reasons for not talking to Rosemary about Fern, but I wonder how much their reasons were shaped by what they wanted to avoid.

And then there’s Fern’s perspective. What does she understand? Getting at the whole truth may be impossible. There’s subjectivity born of lack of information and lack of capacity to understand. But it’s hard to say any single version of the story is totally untrue.

This is a heart-breaking book. I would have found it so even if I weren’t prone to get emotional over animal stories. But it’s also an interesting book in its construction. I was really impressed with how Fowler built the story, always filtered through Rosemary’s perspective, which shifts with each new piece of information she receives.

There were some elements that seemed extraneous and that didn’t interest me much. There’s a whole subplot about a ventriloquist’s dummy and a woman who decides to make Rosemary her friend. And I wish there’d been more of a payoff for the thread involving Rosemary’s mother’s journals. Maybe the journals would have put the narrative off balance, taking the focus away from Rosemary’s perspective. The main plot, however, was riveting. The side plots bothered me mostly because they took me away from that story.

Posted in Fiction | 5 Comments

Tales of Burning Love

tales of burning loveOver the past few years, I’ve been slowly reading Louise Erdrich’s novels, beginning with the first and going chronologically. Most of her books take place in and around the same town, Argus, North Dakota, and its nearby reservation. Her characters are members of the Ojibwe tribe and the primarily German-American people who inhabit the same place. Her characters recur, and this can be confusing if too much time has elapsed between books. Who is Lyman Lamartine again? Is June Morrissey the same person as the June Kashpaw who died in Love Medicine? Is Dot Nanapush related to the Nanapush in Tracks? (Answers: I don’t know, yes, and sort of.)

Tales of Burning Love is the story of Jack Mauser and his five ex-wives. Jack is a charming but constitutionally reckless guy, a construction contractor with a deep love of alcohol and women. He’s addicted to commitment: no matter how unsuitable the relationship, he drags it to the altar, with life-changing consequences for him and for the women in his life. The book opens in 1981, when Jack has drunk himself nearly into oblivion because of a terrible toothache. Next to him at the bar is June. The attending clergyman is on the next bar stool, and the wedding rings are pop-tops from beer cans. Later that night, he allows June (whose name he didn’t quite catch) to walk out into a blizzard. She is found frozen to death, and the guilt of that relationship haunts Jack in the rest of the book.

By middle age, he’s accumulated five divorces and a baby son. He can’t dodge the rest of his life crashing in on him, either: he owes massive money to the bank for the unsellable division he’s just built, he’s cheated and run out on so many partners and businesses that he can’t get anyone to work with him; his charm is signally failing to impress his loan officer. He allows his house to catch fire (another brilliant idea fueled by alcohol).

In the middle section of the book, four of his ex-wives are trapped together after Jack’s funeral, in a second furious blizzard, in Jack’s red Explorer. They take the enforced time to mourn the man they’ve just put to rest. Once they have worked past some of their initial hostility and jealousy toward each other, they begin to talk about Jack, each of them offering her tale of how they met and fell in love, and meditating on what captured her about this man. These women each have very different temperaments and histories. This middle section makes real comic sparks, as the stories fit together: one woman reeled after breaking up with Jack, miring herself in professional scandal and retreating to a convent to study a saint-to-be. Two more of the wives fell in love with each other and are raising Jack’s son. The fourth is Dot, an accountant, stolid and no-nonsense (and a bigamist.) All the threads are carefully gathered together.

I enjoyed this book, but there were things about it I had trouble with. For one thing, you can tell just from my description that despite the large cast of female characters, this book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. Jack is the driving force of the novel, and when he’s center stage, it feels like he belongs there. But when the women are talking about him, he doesn’t seem deserving of this amount of attention — just another irresponsible guy. I wanted to hear more about the women themselves, their own stories. Also, despite the significant length of the novel (450 pages), there are ideas that never get resolved. One character after another gets her safe landing — Erdrich is still using her favorite device of multiple narrators and perspectives — but I still had questions. Her prose is as beautiful as ever, but this wasn’t my favorite installment so far. Still, I’m looking forward to reading The Antelope Wife.

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Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq

In 2010, cartoonist Sarah Glidden traveled with journalist friends Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill through Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. The journalists, founders of the Seattle Globalist, were there to meet and interview people and develop stories for their website and other publications. They weren’t sure what they would get, but this type of travel had worked for them in the past, and they had contacts who could help them meet refugees and others with stories that don’t often get told. Along for the trip was Sarah Stuteville’s friend Dan O’Brien, an ex-marine and Iraq veteran. The idea was that Sarah S. could build a story on what it was like for Dan to return and to meet people affected by the war in Iraq. Sarah Glidden was there to document the trip, focusing on the process of journalism.

So this book offers both perspectives on life in these countries and perspectives on the work of communicating about those lives to American audiences. The refugee stories are, naturally, pretty fascinating. Most of the people the journalists meet were middle class, but war (not just the Iraq war but others before it) forced them to give up their resources and become poor. I wonder now what happened to those who were too poor to escape. The stories vary in their particulars, but common threads emerge. A good life, some unease, then a crisis that made it impossible to stay. And now they wait for a permanent home.

One particularly complex story involved a man who made it all the way to the U.S., where he lived for years, raising two children in Seattle. But a chance meeting connected him to the 911 plotters, and he was deported back to Iraq. Despite what happened, he continues to love America, and he hopes to return someday. The journalists struggle with how hard to push him on his story. They have read documents from ICE, and they know that the lies on his initial immigration form were more extensive than he claimed. Is there value is pressing him? Will it add to the story they want to tell? Will they even use the material from their interviews with him?

Even more complex is Dan’s involvement. Dan was against the Iraq war, so it was a surprise to everyone when he enlisted. Throughout the trip, Sarah S. interviews him repeatedly, trying to understand how being back is affecting him and what he thinks now of his time in Iraq. She’s frustrated that he expresses no regrets, that he focuses instead on how much better life is for the Iraqi Kurds that they talk to about the war. Is he clinging to their stories out of guilt? What will happen when they get to Syria and meet Sunni refugees there? Is it right to push him toward some sort of epiphany? And what if he doesn’t get there? Is it even ethical for Sarah to have turned a childhood friend into a journalism subject? This story got a little tedious after a while, but it raised some interesting questions about journalists’ expectations when going into a story and their subjects’ suspicions about the work.

One of the things that comes up repeatedly is how much digging journalists have to do to even get at a potential story, much less one that they can develop and sell. Some really interesting stories are difficult to sell, such as the one about poor Kurdish refugees living in a former prison. They think they’ve sold it to The World, but it’s rejected as too dark. Interestingly, Sarah Glidden’s cartoon work about journalism means that the story gets told, albeit briefly and as part of a larger story.

The book is presented in a comic-book format, a medium I’m finding really terrific for journalism. (See especially Joe Sacco’s amazing work.) Sarah Glidden’s drawings are in color, with soft muted tones. The art isn’t splashy, and the nature of the story means that there are a lot of talking heads with speech bubbles. It’s not as interesting to look at as some of the nonfiction comics I’ve read, but that might be fitting because so much of the work she documents involves sitting in nondescript rooms and having conversations.

The book is at its best when it focuses on the people the journalists meet, but I was interested in the questions about journalism that the book raised, so I wasn’t sorry to get that behind-the-scenes look. The approach of the Globalist team is apparently not the norm, however, so its value as a study of journalism is limited. It is a book about these journalists on this trip after these stories, and I appreciated it for that.

Near the end of the book, Sarah S. talks to Sarah G. about her goals for her work. Sarah G. is frustrated that their stories aren’t making more of an impact. And Sarah S. says that her goal isn’t to create change. Instead, she asks herself, “Is it better that this story is out there in the world than if it wasn’t? If the answer is yes, then you do it.” After that, it’s up to the reader. I think that applies to this book, too. It’s good that this story is out there, even if there’s no clear lesson or easy answer to come from it.

I first learned about this book from Aarti, who shares my interest in this kind of journalism. You should check out her review, too. Thanks, Aarti, for the recommendation!

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics, Nonfiction | 4 Comments

To the Is-Land

to the islandThe first volume of Janet Frame’s autobiography begins with a chapter called In the Second Place:

From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction always toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.

Janet Frame was a New Zealand author of novels, short stories, poetry, and this three-volume autobiography. She suffered from mental illness, including misdiagnoses that led to multiple psychiatric hospitalizations and time in institutions. (She was about to be lobotomized when the news came out that her first collection of short stories had won a national literary prize. The lobotomy was deferred.) You might know her from Jane Campion’s outstanding film An Angel at My Table, which is an adaptation of the autobiography.

In this volume, Frame works at telling her childhood. She was the daughter of a railway worker, the third of five children. She describes a life of poverty, of never having quite enough clothes or beds or food or books or money to go around. She also describes human tragedy, like the baffling, violent epilepsy of her brother and the death of one of her sisters. But the tone is  matter-of-fact. These are the conditions she grew up in, often happy and sometimes sad. The real work of the piece is not really to consider even the very specific social conditions — poverty, health care — surrounding this one girl’s life. There are no generalities here. Instead, her work is to ferret out what made her who, precisely she is: ruler of her own Is-Land (as opposed to the Was-Land or the Future.) As she says in that first tiny chapter, these are facts, but also truths, and also myth.

Language is one of the main factors in the way Frame becomes herself. She reports her own childish mispronunciations (“warnut” for walnut; “God Save Our Gracious Tin,”) as part of her working through and understanding language. “I was learning words, believing from the beginning that words meant what they said.” The slow process of understanding that words do not always mean what they say — and, perhaps a worse betrayal, that adults do not always mean what they say — is a formational part of Frame’s childhood. She writes of certain words that are memorable in her life:

I remember learning to spell and use these three words: decide, destination, and observation, all of which worked closely with adventure. I was enthralled by their meaning and by the fact that all three seemed to be part of the construction of every story — everyone was deciding, having a destination, observing in order to decide and define the destination and know how to deal with the adventures along the way.

She writes especially vividly of learning to read, and the effect that novels and poetry had on her. One teacher was an especial poetry devotee, and helped to open Frame’s consciousness to the “other land” of literature.

This other land revealed to me by Miss Lindsay, whom we laughed at because her face was like a cow’s face, with a dew-lap, and she wore funny shoes with pointy toes, could contain all the unspoken feeling that moved alive beneath the surface of each day and night and came above the surface only in the way earthworms came, when there was too much rain; and these feelings were secrets that this new land could receive without shock or horror or the need for revenge or punishment; it was yet a private place.

Frame retreats more and more to this “private place,” through reading and through writing as well. She quotes the poetry and the songs that formed her, and she also quotes her own poetry (with a bit of a sardonic eye toward the sentimental and cliché-ridden verses of a high school girl.) Poetry is what helps her through her sister’s death, by giving her the insight that some poets wrote specifically for her own experience. And she constantly questions what is poetic: at first, it is a soft, romantic world, described by the poems she’s given at school and by words like stars, gray, misty, soft, deep, shadowy, little, flowers, dreams. But as she grows, Frame begins to desire a different poetics: one that would describe the actual world around her (Oamaru, not an English country churchyard) and describe real New Zealand experience.

This was a fascinating book. It’s full of life, of the little embarrassments and misunderstandings of childhood, of games and songs and naughty words and the struggle to put together a proper uniform for school. It considers how Frame’s own Is-Land of being and language was formed and furnished by her earliest childhood. The book ends with her acceptance to Dunedin Teacher’s College: “In early February, as a member of a Railway Family with a privilege or priv. ticket, I traveled south on the Sunday slow train to Dunedin and my Future.” I’m deeply interested in reading the next volume, An Angel at My Table, and finding out what that future looks like through her eyes.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 2 Comments


ruthI’ve read several of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels, and thought all of them were quite spectacularly good (North and South, Wives and Daughters, Cranford.) So I was expecting a pleasure when I picked up Ruth, her second novel. Was I ever right.

Plot-wise, Ruth is a fairly standard tale of a fallen woman. Ruth is a fifteen-year-old orphan, and essentially friendless when the book opens. She has been given a job dressmaking by her distant guardian, but she has no one to give her help or advice. Through a series of events and coincidences, Ruth meets a conscienceless gentleman named Mr. Billingham, and he seduces her and then leaves her brutally. This results in a pregnancy, and Ruth is now a pariah: a wanton woman, unfit to associate with good people, a source of corruption, and a bad mother for bringing a bastard into the world.

Fortunately for Ruth, she finds new, compassionate friends, a brother and sister, who are willing to help her. They put the story about that she is a young widow, and this gives her the chance to stay with them in peace, to shape her character, and even to find employment. But Ruth’s past doesn’t remain past, and her character is put to a severe test by the end of the book.

Gaskell knew when she was writing this novel that she was dealing with a controversial subject. Ruth, as a victim of seduction, is at the center of this novel, not marginalized or condemned. Gaskell represents her as a woman whose life, in all respects but one, is essentially beyond reproach: she is intelligent, modest, humble, self-possessed, grateful, and kind. Gaskell makes us think about the question: is Ruth a sinner who can be redeemed, or is she an innocent who only needs understanding? Neither of these were part of the common Victorian understanding of the fallen woman. (Though of course one of the main purposes of much Victorian literature is to critique Victorian values. Look at Dickens alone.)

The book, and especially the Benson household, is deeply faithful, from Ruth’s constant prayer to be made fit to raise her child, to the treatment of judgment and hypocrisy. Thurstan Benson, a Dissenting minister, is kind and gentle to Ruth, and believes that she, as well as other women in her same case, are examples of “broken hearts to be bound up,” rather than objects of contempt. Mr. Bradshaw, the village rich man, on the other hand, is rigidly judgmental (though not a hypocrite, an important distinction to make.) His reading of the Bible tells him that Ruth should be utterly cast out, and any consequences are her own fault. His sexual double standard (he does not even think of the father of Ruth’s child) is clearly marked as wrong in the book, though it is the expected way of thinking about such cases. And his judgment contributes to his son’s hypocrisy and eventual corruption.

There is a lot of illness in this book, beginning with one of Ruth’s friends at the dressmaking shop, moving on to the illness that made Mr. Bellingham desert Ruth so cruelly, and making up the climax of the novel. (Apparently Dickens once said that he wished her characters were steadier on their feet.) But Gaskell never represents Ruth as the source of this physical and mental disease. Indeed, by the end of the book, she is a noted healer. This, too, would be impossible in most stories of seduction.

As I read Ruth, I kept thinking of this quotation from Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye:

It was about men, the kind who caused women to fall. I did not ascribe any intentions to these men. They were like the weather, they didn’t have a mind. They merely drenched you or struck you like lightning and moved on, mindless as blizzards. Or they were like rocks, a line of sharp slippery rocks with jagged edges. You could walk with care along between the rocks, picking your steps, and if you slipped you’d fall and cut yourself, but it was no use blaming the rocks.
That must be what was meant by fallen women. Fallen women were women who had fallen onto men and hurt themselves. There was some suggestion of downward motion, against one’s will and not with the will of anyone else. Fallen women were not pulled-down women or pushed women, merely fallen. Of course there was Eve and the Fall; but there was nothing about falling in that story, which was only about eating, like most children’s stories.

At first, Ruth is a fallen woman in this sense: without a guide, she has fallen onto the slippery rocks and hurt herself. But Gaskell allows her to get back up. That reversal of expectations is the great pleasure and suspense of the novel — will she fall again? Will she be able to protect her child? And the answers are both Romantic and realistic. This was a tremendously satisfying book, and I look forward to more Gaskell.


Posted in Classics, Fiction | 7 Comments